Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1956, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has rightfully and understandably gone on to be recognized as a classic work of science fiction cinema, the kind that holds up well decades after it was made not because of effects work or technique but because of the themes and ideas that it explores.
The story follows Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), a small town general practitioner who returns to his home from a convention when a rash of strange illnesses break out amongst his patient base. While others tried to fill in for him while he was out of town, none of his patients would talk to anyone but he - though once he gets back, it seems that everything goes back to normal just as quickly as it began, something that Bennell finds quite curious. Nevertheless, Bennell is pleased to find that Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), his former girlfriend, has returned to town as well. They run into one another and decide to get reacquainted and before you know it, their romance is in full bloom. While out on a date one night, they get interrupted by a call from friends Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones) who urge them to come to their home right away. The couple begrudgingly oblige and are shocked to discover that there's a body devoid of any distinguishing feature on the table in their home, Jack noting that he found it in the pool in their backyard.
All of this starts to tie in with other odd behavior noticed amongst the townsfolk - a little boy who swears up and down that the woman who everyone knows is his mother is not his mother, a confession by Becky's cousin Wilma (Virginia Lentz) that she doesn't think their Uncle Ira is really their Uncle Ira, and more. When the body that once had no features soon grows into something that looks identical to Teddy, Donnell starts to wonder what's going on - he finds the answer in the pods that are appearing all over town and which seem to be giving birth to plant based versions of the townspeople. Unfortunately for Bennell, nobody he talks to about it seems to believe a word he's saying, including the cops...
Although the film has been remade a few times now and with varying degrees of success, in the minds of many Siegel's original remains the best version. Right from the opening scene in which Bennell runs like a madman into the police station where he's understandably viewed initially as a lunatic, this is a movie that grabs you from the start and holds your interest throughout. Made right in the middle of America's post WWII obsession with communists and nuclear weapons, it's easy to see how the theme of having something foreign that wants to do away with your way of life living right in amongst you would strike a chord with audiences of the day. Kevin McCarthy plays his role perfectly, sweating his way through a very inspired performance and truly committing to the character to the point where what could easily have fallen into camp territory instead feels like a genuine and believable turn in front of the camera. He shares effective onscreen chemistry with the beautiful Dana Wynter and supporting efforts from King Donovan and Carolyn Jones are also strong. Look for a quick cameo from a young Sam Peckinpah as Charlie, the gas man who appears in the basement during a key scene.
Strong acting aside, there's a lot more to like about the movie. Siegel keeps the pace going very well, and as our leads start to realize just what's happening, the film takes on an interesting claustrophobic tone. While there are a few spots where the pods themselves look like the props that they are, there are also a couple of parts in the movie where the effects are quite effective too, the best example being the 'hatching' scene that takes place in the last half of the film. It might seem primitive by modern standards and on a technical level it probably is but when those pods start foaming and effectively give birth on screen, these scenes can still send a chill down your spine. The fact that all of this is accomplished without minimal effects work and virtually no gore, violence or jump scares makes the picture all that more impressive.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers looks pretty good on this DVD in 2.00.1 anamorphic widescreen. The black and white image is clean without looking overly scrubbed and detail isn't bad at all for a standard definition presentation of an older film. Contrast looks right, black levels are solid and there are no issues with compression artifacts. Compared to some black and white transfers the picture isn't quite as crisp but this has more to do with the 'Superscope' format used to shoot the film in the first place than the transfer and those who have seen the movie before will know that the film has always looked this way. Overall though, the movie looks good here.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix on the DVD is fine. The levels are properly balanced, the dialogue is crisp and easy to follow and there are no noticeable issues with hiss or distortion to report. The film's score sounds nice and clean and adds some welcome dramatic flair to a few key scenes. There are no alternate language options or subtitles of any kind provided.
Extras? None, not even a trailer, just a static menu and chapter selection.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers holds up well as a great example of just how good and how tense a film can be when in the right hands. It's very well acted and pretty much impeccably directed and it's rarely been bettered when it comes to its effectiveness in demonstrating the effects of paranoia on screen. Olive Films' DVD release looks and sounds good, but unfortunately contains no extras whatsoever. Regardless, the release is recommended on the strength of the movie.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.